Beachcombers and castaways
Rakiura’s western shoreline is the flotsam-and-jetsam coast. Here the detritus of human endeavour mingles with nature’s dead—albatrosses, whales, kelp, fish. It is the dune coast, too, where a beachcomber can follow kiwi tracks through hillocks of sand or pause to watch a wolf spider transporting her young. It is a place apart.
In March 1890 a ship was wrecked off South Red Head Point. The barque Emilie had drifted for five days, hammered by a gale. Then her mast snapped, cleaving the lifeboat in two. Twelve seamen were aboard. Four survived the ordeal; the sea swallowed the balance. The survivors endured seven days on the rocks, subsisting on seaweed, weka, mussels and a dead seal. Muttonbirders on the Titi Islands sighted the wreckage and took the survivors aboard their vessel.
At any other time of year there would have been no one birding, and the castaways would have had to make for the sealers’ cave at Doughboy Bay. The cave lies behind the dunes, sheltered from the worst of the weather. Men with tripots, clubs and lances once occupied this spot, and the rendering stench of marine mammals filled the air. Now, 106 years later, it is I who sit in this fissure in the granite. Three beds are apparent against the walls of the embouchement—it is hardly a cave. There is a cupboard set into a crevice. There is even a book for people to record their visits and intentions.
What the sea throws up on the beach—bits of planking, fishing nets, rope—has been dragged here.
Over the years the furnishings have no doubt changed as supports have rotted or sagged. New additions are made, old ones go by the wayside. There are rats here, the whalers’ and sealers’ consorts. The soot-blackened walls are marked with carved initials. Drops fall from the roof, sweating the earth. Who has sheltered within these walls?
Out on the beach, I sit on a driftwood log. The tang of the sea comes to me in waves, strong and metallic, mingling with the smell of dead kelp. It has taken me eight hours to walk here. The mud that coats my legs is flecked with pepper-coloured sand. My gloves are sodden. Pale winter dusk grips the prospect. There is a deep pleasure in knowing that I am the only one in the bay.
The log’s dark surface betrays little hint of its origins. Sand and sea have seen to that—almost. But there is something about it that is too symmetrical, too rectangular, to be nature’s work. Perhaps it was part of the consignment Emilie was carrying. She was bound for Australia with a load of pit-sawn timber from Southland’s primeval forests. Any sweat the log absorbed from the sawyers’ hands has long since leached into the sea, salt returned to salt.
I pass up a night in the cave with the rats and the damp for the bunks and potbelly stove of Doughboy Bay’s bivouac, a wooden and polythene structure attached to a tiny tin hut. A possum tries on three occasions to force entry. Pulling aside the black plastic with its paw, it makes its way arrogantly into the shelter. I throw bits of firewood at the animal, and after the third projectile it leaves and doesn’t return.
It’s a good thing Maori didn’t name the kiwi after the female’s guttural cry—it would have been an ugly word. The calls of both sexes fade with dawn, along with my dreams. I drag myself from the fug of my sleeping bag. Outside the but the ground is pocked with holes, as if someone has been jabbing a stick into the earth. The kiwi have been busy in the night. I chance upon a feather. It reminds me of the first kiwi I ever saw. It was dead. It had fallen into a track construction pit between Bungaree and Christmas Village Huts, on the North West Circuit, and had slowly starved. The other trampers and I looked dejectedly at its gaunt, supine form. Feathers still covered the carcass. We had been expecting to see kiwi, but hadn’t been prepared for the first to be dead. We threw sticks into any other pits we found.
Coffee snaps me from my reverie and I walk the track to the beach. Someone has made a flotsam-and-jetsam man. The eyes are plastic bottle tops, the arms are bull kelp, the yellow wrap of hair is nylon rope, unravelled into its fibres. The mix of natural and man-made seems an unholy alliance, but somehow it works. This place appears so primordial, so removed from the developed world, but the refuse that fetches up on its beaches suggests otherwise.
I beachcomb for a time, then find myself walking back though the dunes to the cave. In late autumn 1978, a light plane landed on this beach, bringing four passengers. One was Keiko Agatsuma. She was returning under police escort—to collect some buried money, she said. She had lived here in Doughboy cave, cooking her meals under a rough corrugated-iron barrel. To her the place was the antithesis of Tokyo, where she worked as a cleaner in glass-and-concrete tower blocks. She said she hadn’t known such places existed. Her visa allowed her 30 days in the country. She took 180 more. New Zealand immigration officials extradited her as an overstayer.
I read her story in old newspapers that were turning yellow and brittle. Her intent was to get south, as far south as she could. Australia wasn’t far enough. Getting away from Tokyo—that was the important thing. Her family felt like strangers, she said.
I thought about her lugging her belongings over Adams Hill, the high point between Doughboy and Mason Bays. Did she have a suitcase? Or did she strap them to her back? How did she cope with the peat bogs, the roots of the bog pine, the steep inclines? When she returned, an odd drama played out near the crest. She led her escort into the manuka to look for the money, but nothing was found. The police suspected it was a ruse, a chance to have one last look at the island.
I walk through the bush to a point at the south end of Doughboy Bay. Below me, a seal barks from a gulch and waves suckle the small caves. The track is a mire. The teteawekamuttonbird scrub—is in flower: white petals, waxy, serrated leaves, purple-black buds. Rainbows wax and wane. Wavy froth lines stream off the point in the lee of the westerly, and the sun catches the sienna of the taller dunes south of Doughboy Creek. I spend hours trying to catch fish off the point. I hook them readily enough, but their strength exceeds my line’s and they escape my ravenous gaze in silvery flashes, descending through their watery world. Keiko, I think, would have fished here.
Dumpling-like figures have been hewn out of the headland by the roaring forties. The bay is named after these granitoid rocks. Doughboy—an American term. I somehow connect with the strange shapes, carved by the sea’s raw breath.
The Piper is late picking me up. The pilot says hunters delayed him at Mason Bay. As we lift off from the beach I see the last images Keiko had of the island: the blue-black ocean, the forest blanket, the sickle of beach. What is it that makes us hunger so?
Keiko, I saw what you saw, and yet perhaps I saw things you didn’t, but that is our nature—we bring who we are to a place, and the place, in its turn, changes us, remakes us. Places hint at what is possible in the world. Perhaps to you it intimated too much.
Five years have passed and Rakiura is calling again. The plane flies over Mason Bay—a scanning pass. The beach is clear. We bounce along the sand, the motor splutters out. I have sat cramped between two packs for 20 minutes. Through a small rear portal have come images: the swash of waves in Foveaux Strait, the biblical cliffs of the Ruggedys, vegetation clinging to rock just beyond the sea’s spray. My knees have locked, and I stumble on to the beach like an arthritic goat. Mason Bay is a 14 km crescent of sand facing bravely west into the winds of the mid-latitudes. It was once thought to be the edge of a meteorite crater—there’s nothing so fanciful as a beautiful falsehood. The bay may not catch things from the sky, but it collects them from the sea: pumice, ambergris, whales, plastic.
I pitch my tent on the banks of Duck Creek. In the evening I find a stonefield in the dunes and comb it for ventifacts. I take one up in my palm, rub its smooth, pitted facets and run a finger along a distinct ridge. Dust-laden winds have blasted this stone into a pyramid shape. Sand grains have lodged in little surface depressions and whirled around, enlarging them into pits.
Morning finds me at Big Sandhill, where winds have strafed the rock into fan shapes. Geologists originally called these “pseudo shatter cones”—the crater theory again. The patterns are now attributed to sandblasting. “A complex bit of geology, quite different to anything I’ve ever dealt with” is how Dunedin geologist Graham Bishop has described the Mason Bay area. I once asked him about the meteorite theory. “We took it very seriously. Many of the geological features resemble those of impact craters—even now I’m not totally sure.”
Geologists remain puzzled by “erratics”—rocks with no relation to the local geology. Bishop thinks they may be gastroliths: “Sea lions apparently swallow stones to mill food around, and later regurgitate them. You can get a lot where they come ashore.” There are also angular erratics, and for these there is another theory: kelp holdfasts. Waves smash kelp off headlands, and the grip of the holdfasts is strong enough to rip off loose rock. Holdfasts drift over from the mainland and rot, leaving erratics.
I descend Big Sandhill to the Island Hill homestead, now the Department of Conservation field centre. Introduced grasses and clover grow freely. A gooseberry bush is blanketed with bracken. Dog kennels lie rotting and rusting beneath the macrocarpas. There’s nobody here, so I peer through the windows. I see an old cast-iron bath with eagle-foot claws. Beach pumice sits in the soap holder. The window ledges have a layer of dead flies. I make out a wooden washing rack, a green candle in a scallop shell. In the back porch sits a three-legged washing machine powered by a crank. Out front an aeroplane-shaped wind vane points south-west, its propeller clanging.
In the shed is a rusty Massey Ferguson tractor and a scrub-clearing plough. Empty drums of aviation gas and smaller cans of herbicide point to marram-grass control. Towards Freshwater River are the stockyards. There is a brick sheepdip. Washed-up planks form parts of the woolshed. You can read the names of old boats—Wairua, Macaulay. Shearing tallies, one totaling 209, are chalked up on the walls.
Sheep have been run here since the 1870s. Wool-laden boats crashed out through the surf to waiting ships. In the 1920s a dray road was hacked out of the manuka to Freshwater River, at the head of Paterson Inlet, to get the wool out. In later years the clip was flown out from an airstrip, the aviation fuel costing a little less than the fleece fetched at sale. Margins were squeezed from both ends. Two fluctuating commodities are not a good equation for a businessman. But who cares for business when you can watch kiwi from your porch?
Tim Te Aika, a Chatham Islander, and his wife, Ngaire, farmed the Island Hill run for 20 years. I talked to them near Manapouri, where they have retired. I asked about Keiko—I can’t seem to get her out of my mind. Tim probably knew her better than anyone else on the island. “She was a strange person, but, how would I put it, very honourable. She wouldn’t take anything from you unless she thought she could pay it back.” Tim put me straight on the cavewoman myth. “Stories about her were ill-founded. In those days, anyone who went to Doughboy stayed in the cave. She was mainly at the Mason Bay hut, and used to come up and do some farm work, but she hadn’t had any experience with sheep or dogs. Once she got to know us she would share a meal.”
I asked Tim about the strange things that wash up. When I’d questioned Robin Thomas, a Forest Service ranger on Rakiura for nine years, about this he’d astonished me by answering “human bodies.” Tim also mentioned bodies, but bigger ones. “An amazing creature—a giant squid between Wreck and Cavalier Creeks. I measured it. It was 25 feet long. The body itself was eight feet. The suction cups were one-and-ahalf inches in diameter. It made me wonder about the old tales of sperm whales with suction-cup marks a foot across. How big were the squid to have cups that size? I cut the beak out and gave it to the Half Moon Bay School. It was like a parrot’s. The whole thing, with the muscle, and the top and bottom mandibles, was sort of circular—about the size of a baseball.”
He’d also found a whale shark and sperm whales. “One sperm whale had no lower jaw. It must have been a bull and I presume it had had a fight with another bull. We pulled out 11 or 12 pounds of ambergris once it disintegrated, but I don’t think it was very good stuff. I’ve still got a bit. Some people don’t like the smell, but I do. The nearest thing I can think of is a cigar—strong, almost pungent.”
The Chinese knew of ambergris. They thought it was the drool of dragons that had been sleeping on the ocean’s edge. The Japanese were more accurate, calling it kunsurano fuu—whale droppings. Mystery still enshrouds it. It is thought to be secreted by the gut of sperm whales, perhaps in response to irritation caused by sharp, indigestible squid beaks. It was used as a fixer of perfumes. I find humour in the notion of whale excreta being used to enamour genteel ladies.
Tim knew where the local kiwi nested. Now that the sheep have gone, the grass is tall and hides the kiwi well. They are comical figures, almost absurd. “All arse and beak,” a hunter quips in Mason Bay but that night. I see them shuffling about outside the hut. On the beach, too, foraging for sandhoppers and other comestibles.
The following day I walk to the north end of the beach. Plastic fishing bins announce their origins: “Stolen from Talleys,” “Stolen from Sealord.” The sea has stolen them. Kelp thrashes in the surf. At the far end of the bay a track sign points upwards. “Little Hellfire,” it reads. Perhaps it should be pointing downwards. The next beach is Big Hellfire. Damnation by degrees.
There are beech trees on Stewart Island, but only on the beaches—driftwood from the mainland. I find many things cast up by the sea: a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label—the label gone but the top still screwed on—divers’ flippers, a gas bottle, a dead seagull. Wood sticks out of a peat layer in the sand cliffs. I break off a piece and bite into it—salty and desiccated, it must be some 10,000 years old. Bluebottles pop underfoot as I walk. Bits of plastic buoy are worn like old glass—the grinding sand is a rough environment. At dusk, looking along the curve of the beach, I watch the spray drifting inland, a shroud on the dunes.
There are kiwi tracks and cat tracks in the dunes. Like snow, the sand shows everything. It tells a story, but not for long in Stewart Island’s winds. The sun, too, does its work. Differential heating of sand’s constituents—quartz and feldspars—tumbles the grains. Everything is broken in the end.
I come upon a deer trail and follow it. The tracks are fresh, not yet smoothed over by the inexorable drift of sand. I stop. Something nags at me, but I can’t place it. Later, the clean clefts of the deer’s imprints bring it forward: one cat’s tracks were following a kiwi’s.
Kiwi tracks are everywhere. One set goes straight up and down the dunes. The kiwi that made it seemed to have no notion of traversing or switchbacks. A rather lazy bird at that—it has dragged its feet in the sand, the front claw adding a streak to each print. If it did this in the bush it would trip. We do the same thing, altering our gait to suit the terrain. Why am I so surprised to see this in another animal?
I muse over the chaotic wanderings of kiwi through these dunelands. I try to find a pattern in the prints. Here was one obviously focused on a destination. Here another whose loops indicate a feeding pattern. I look back at my own path. It twists, stops, backtracks and occasionally veers sideways. I feel almost awkward at discovering this fact. I go back to where I began tracking the kiwi; here I think my path will be more purposeful. Not so. Small diversions—things seen, half-seen. I must have looked up at a seagull or a cloud, my steps veering with the slight loss of poise. The contours of the dunes, too, predicate certain footfalls. This, I think, is how paths are formed. My trail is a way of seeing, as well as a way through the dunes.
Next morning I head south to Martins Creek. I go up the creek, but can’t find the hunters’ bivouac. I should have looked at the map. Dropping back through the dunes, I catch a glimpse of the mountain radio aerial. I cross a natural bridge of storm-tide driftwood, taking a path that leads to a pond. It is covered with water lilies. Dolly Leask, adding a woman’s touch in a wild land, planted these. She and her husband, Stanford, farmed here before the Te Aikas.
Seagulls scrabble on the beach and cicadas trill in the marram. The wind forms chevron patterns as it drifts sand from dunes to sea. At the high tide mark I come upon a rusted tractor, half-buried. My pack is heavy. The hard-packed sand at the waterline offers easy walking, but the high-tide and storm lines, where my heels dig in, make better beachcombing. Momentum is lost. Frustration builds. My footsteps reveal my indecision—easy travel vs flotsam treasures. If nothing is found in a few minutes of beachcombing, the hard-pack wins.
I dump my pack and wend through the dunes to Cavalier Bivouac. I surprise the resident hunter, whom I recognise as “Doc” Marty, the nurse at Halfmoon Bay—so nicknamed not because of his medical status but for his arrival on the island in Doc Martins (they wear gumboots in Halfmoon Bay). Marty gives me a cup of tea and a tomato toasty. He is here for whitetail deer.
I’d like to hear about the history of Mason Bay. “Don’t ask me. The man you want’s up there.” He points at the ridge. He is referring to his hunting companion, Cyril Leask, who grew up here. Casting my eye to the ridge I note the dead rata skeletons. Marty follows my gaze. “Eight-hundred-year-old rata just getting nailed by possums.” The Department of Conservaiton has plans to drop 1080 poison to control the island’s possum population. Hunters worry about secondary kill and the unknown side-effects of such an operation. I change the subject.
“You must have found some strange things on the beach.”
“Kauri gum, rotten coconuts, ambergris. Did you see the dead albatross?”
“Near the old tractor.”
“Ahhh. I was down on the hard.” He asks what I think of the national park.
“I suppose it had to happen.” “You reckon?”
“I mean, look at it.” I gesture at our surroundings. Marty doesn’t reply, but he knows. This place is sublime.
I shoulder my pack and push on to Doughboy. I find wool snagged on some stinkwood. It is still oily—wild sheep range hereabouts. In the dark forest, yellow lichen flashes from rimu bark like lightning seen through closed eyelids. Red rata flowers litter the track, but kidney ferns are ashes in my hand. It has not rained in a while.
At the summit I take in the vista. Solander Island is a black ship on the horizon. Black, too, are the macrocarpas, which give away Rakeahua Hut and Kilbride, one of the old Mason Bay homesteads. Just to the left of Codfish Island storm clouds bloom over southern Fiordland.
Dropping down to Doughboy I reacquaint myself with bog holes. Sand has washed on to the mud, forming a thin layer. It looks firm, but a curse slips out when your foot doesn’t do as expected. It is disconcerting. You are never sure whether you will plunge to thigh depth or walk on.
On the rocks, sunburnt kelp crunches under my feet. Low tides and persistent summer easterlies have exposed the seaweed and flattened the sea. I catch a trumpeter off the point and eat some sashimi. The olive oil and lemons I have been carrying are not wasted. The but book describes the rescue of a seal snagged in kelp. The rescuers used knives and a bag placed over the seal’s head—”both on long sticks.” It seems to have worked; the seal was last seen swimming out to sea.
At the top of the beach a banded dotterel comes out of the dunes and gives me its best broken-wing routine. I play the game and follow it away from the nest. Old holdfasts resemble bleached skulls. Sand, sun and sandhoppers do their work of attrition. Many things bleach to white—crab carapaces, wood, whalebone. A beachcomber can collect a lot of things. But shells look better when wet, the same way bits of rock and driftwood look better on the beach than if you take them home. They are imbued with personal meaning, but others are unimpressed. To them they are just wood and rock, while to you they are memory triggers, touchstones. Some people varnish them, but it’s not the same. Nothing is ever the same.
It is the longest day of the year. I should go kiwi spotting after dark, but the sky is still light at 11 P.m. and I want to sleep.
The plane is late. I comb the beach again. A holdfast is covered in shellfish. They must have attached themselves while it drifted—a false home, for now it is cast on the shore and they all rot together, host and hangers-on. I come across a headless penguin—flippers and feet identify it. Alongside is a Fred Flintstone shampoo bottle—all markings have been stripped but the shape is a giveaway—and “Fred” is embossed on the front.
I sit on a rimu log. Kakariki chatter, flies buzz, seagulls screech. There is the kerr of the red-billed gulls and the kooyah of the black-backed, with its cruel beak. Both are scavengers, but the black-backed is more predatory—a killer of the weak, infirm, washed-up. I watch one patrolling the beach like a harrier, looking for the fallen.
When you are waiting for a plane your sense of hearing is heightened. I hear many false planes. The surf and wind conspire to make engine noises. I wait. The tide has turned. I am resigned to Christmas Eve at Doughboy Bay when I hear a true engine.
We bank away, and again I see Keiko’s last views of brown-stained river, riffled sand and lapping sea. Two thousand and one and still logs from Emilie litter the beach, along with pilot whale skulls and albatross skeletons.
It is easy to think of this coast as a graveyard for the Southern Ocean, but flotsam and jetsam—the dead, worn-out, bashed-over and cast-up—are just the visible part of a greater unknown, the ocean.
In the Doughboy bivouac I read in a months-old newspaper that Mugabe’s tyranny had exiled a Zimbabwean printer to Christchurch. He said he was happy for now, but his long-term hope was to return. “Africa is in me,” he said. Some places get under your skin, and once there can’t be shaken loose. Rakiura is like that. In 1986, after 20 years of farming, Tim and Ngaire Te Aika left Mason Bay. But there have been many return journeys. As he said to me, “We seem not to be over it yet.”